ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Hurricane Isaias is continuing on a path toward Florida, forcing state-run COVID-19 testing sites to shut down despite a rising number of coronavirus cases statewide.
Florida is still reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases a day and has set a new record for the number of coronavirus-related deaths reported in 24 hours for three consecutive days.
Cases of COVID-19 can’t be confirmed without testing, of course, so as Florida prepares to shut down a number of its testing sites to brace for possible severe weather, there are concerns about what a lack of testing could mean for the state’s coronavirus numbers, which are released daily by the Florida Department of Health.
Fewer tests could mean fewer positive cases, which could lead some to think the state’s outbreak is under control when that might not be the case. That’s not the only impact the closures could have on the data, though, according to Dr. Raul Pino, with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.
Pino addressed a number of possible impacts during a news conference Thursday afternoon, including how the closures could affect the county’s positivity rate.
”What I think will happen is that we will see an increase in our positivity rate, because we will be doing less testing. And I think that the people who would really go for testing during a storm -- if we have the storm -- are people who are feeling really sick,” Pino said.
Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said on Thursday that health officials have recently seen improvement in the county’s daily COVID-19 positivity rate.
“On Wednesday, we had an increase of 374 cases. Tuesday of this week, an increase of 432 cases, and on Monday an increase of 411 cases,” Demings said. “In the midst of the bad news, the good news is that the daily positive rates have been below double digits for the past week, so our numbers effectively are declining.”
Demings said since the start of the pandemic, 28,591 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Orange County. The county’s overall positivity rate, according to the Florida Department of Health, is 11.5%.
Pino and Demings pointed out that while the decision to close state-run testing sites, including the one at Orange County Convention Center, could decrease the number of tests being conducted for a few days, there will still be other testing opportunities available.
The county-run testing site at Econ Soccer Complex, like the Orange County Convention Center testing site, is expected to remain closed through part of next week due to the threat Isaiah is posing on the Central Florida region.
According to Pino, that’s only a fraction of the testing Orange County offers.
“The site that is going to close does about 1,500 tests -- a little bit more depending on volume --and we have about 4,000, 5,000 tests,” Pino said. “So even without that site, we will continue to see a substantial number of tests that is happening in the county.”
Demings said residents should remember that private labs also offer testing and play an important role in the state’s numbers.
“The private providers will continue to be doing testing during this period of time and all of the data that’s derived from that is entered into the state’s database. And so testing will continue within the community,” Demings said.
The good news, according to Pino, is that health officials are aware of the fact that there could be changes in the data trends and will be better able to monitor them since they’re expecting them. He said health officials will factor in these variables when analyzing the data moving forward.
“We will have to look at the data closely and maybe when the labs were collected to start seeing what the timing is and what effect it may have. But what is good about these is that we know that it’s happening,” Pino said. “It is controlled, meaning we know when it’s going to shut down, we know when it’s going to restart, so that we can validate the data in both directions having that into consideration.”
The closure of the sites could also have a positive impact on the delay in testing results patients have seen recently, according to Mike Jachles, with the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
“It’s very possible the labs may be able to take advantage of this opportunity and be able to get caught up on tests and even further reduce the turnaround times,” Jachles said.
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Pino said he also believes it could give labs the chance to catch up on backlogged test collections.
As of Friday at 11 a.m., the storm was forecast to pass over the southeastern Bahamas early Friday, be near the central Bahamas late Friday and move near or over the northwestern Bahamas and near the east coast of Florida Saturday afternoon through Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As part of the 11 a.m. update on Friday, a hurricane watch was issued for parts of Florida’s coast, from north of Deerfield Beach to the Volusia-Brevard county line.
Demings said if the storm ends up missing the region, testing could resume as usual sooner than expected.
“And if we see that the storm itself has a minimal impact, there’s a possibility that the site could reopen sooner than later,” Demings said. “And so if the track turns differently, we have the ability to reopen those sites very quickly.”
Although leaders initially said all state-run sites would close after 5 p.m. Thursday, emergency management officials said in an update Thursday afternoon that some would remain open due to a shift in the storm’s track.
Based on the 5 p.m. #Isaias advisory from @NHC_Atlantic, the state-supported COVID-19 testing sites in the following counties will remain open:— FL Division of Emergency Management (@FLSERT) July 30, 2020
For updates about the system and tips to prepare for storms with COVID-19 concerns in mind, visit ClickOrlando.com/hurricane.